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Lost in the system

Disagreement continues to delay the creation of a national database of addresses, says Michael Cross.

For the second time in two years, a key part of Britain's e-government strategy is in chaos because of uncertainty about who owns postal addresses. The government revealed last week that plans to create a national database of addresses - essential for schemes ranging from the identity card to the reform of the fire service - had been suspended because public agencies had failed to meet a deadline for agreement.

Local government minister Jim Fitzpatrick said he is "disappointed" at the failure of talks to create the so-called national spatial address infrastructure. A leading expert in geographical information, Dr Robert Barr of the University of Manchester, described the failure as "the latest, and perhaps the most serious, breakdown" of "five years' bickering ... during which there has been a scandalous waste of public money".

The lack of a consistent list of addresses is a burden both to business and to government. Many properties have multiple addresses - "Garden Flat" or "Rose Cottage" - while others, such as church halls or factories, have none. Anomalies may be acceptable when local postmen and ambulance know their way around, but not in the age of remote, IT-based administration.

The national spatial address infrastructure, announced in May this year, is an attempt to create a single database from three rival contenders, run by local authorities, the Ordnance Survey mapping agency and Royal Mail. It came after the failure of talks on a previous project, known as Acacia, and set a tight deadline for the first release of the address database, to be run by Ordnance Survey under crown copyright.

However the proposals were attacked by local authorities, which are responsible for collecting new addresses and would be heavy users of any database, for everything from collecting council tax to inspecting kebab shops.

The main cause of concern was that, under the proposals, councils would have to pay Ordnance Survey for data that they had collected themselves. The prospectus warned that data costs could rise by as much as 50%.

More criticism came from a leading expert body, the Association for Geographic Information. In its response to the consultation, it warned that the prospectus failed to clear up questions of ownership, which scuppered previous initiatives such as Acacia. "A repeat of that remains our greatest concern. We cannot have another false start," it warned. It also described the timetable for creating the address infrastructure as "very ambitious".

The association's warnings seem to have been prescient. Last week's announcement, from the Improvement and Development Agency, which represents councils' interests and Ordnance Survey, said that plans to transfer the local authority database to Ordnance Survey "had not reached agreement within the original timescales. Further negotiations on the transfer have been suspended whilst all parties consider the implications for the future."

A participant in the negotiations confirmed that the sticking point is intellectual property. Much data in the council list, the National Land and Property Gazetteer, was collected with little concern about its ownership, so could not safely be transferred to another owner.

Insiders said that they hoped to resolve the issue later in the year and stressed that the breakdown was not acrimonious. Fitzpatrick said in a statement: "I hope the parties will continue to consider options to meet the objectives set out in the prospectus." Other observers were less optimistic. Christopher Roper, a private consultant, said it would be "useless" to ask Ordnance Survey and local authorities to return to the negotiating table. "They have been talking and disagreeing since 1998, to my direct knowledge."

Barr is calling on the government to think again about the way it sets up the national address database, which he describes as "more necessary than ever". This would involve the government stopping any public body claiming intellectual property in addresses and creating a "single pooled data set" under the control of the Cabinet Office's Office for Public Sector Information.

Access to the dataset would be free for government, business and voluntary bodies, which would encourage its wide use. It could be funded by a fee on property registrations, Barr suggests. He called on ministers to act now. "A reliable modernised national spatial address infrastructure is a key ingredient to modernised e-government. No more delay can be tolerated if the rest of the e-government agenda is not to be held back by this apparently trivial, but vital piece of infrastructure."

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